Four years have passed since Batman: Arkham City, the free-roaming Batman masterpiece and sequel to the revolutionary Arkham Asylum. In that time, we've had a cinematic Dark Knight Rises, several Lego Batmen, and even an Arkham prequel in the shape of the spotty (but essentially fine) Arkham Origins. Now, after what seems like an age, Rocksteady have released the final part in their trilogy, the eagerly-awaited Arkham Knight.
Who? It's a title which doesn't refer to Batman himself, instead being a mysterious masked figure working with Big Bad Scarecrow to destroy both the Batman and Gotham City. Nothing to do with the Joker, then, whose death at the end of Arkham City seems to have stuck. Or does it? Well, this is answered within the game's opening seconds in a manner one might consider pretty definitively, but we've learned by now never to underestimate the Clown Prince of Crime. Or, for that matter, the smart storytelling mechanics by Rocksteady and the game's writers. From the first game's Scarecrow levels to the sequel's weird little Mad Hatter diversion and brave ending, the Arkham series has always had an eye for the surreal, and this one is no different.
That sense of familiarity carries through to everything else though, which feels disappointingly similar to previous outings at times. It certainly tries to shake things up with the introduction of the Batmobile, but there's nothing to compare to that feeling of walking down the corridors of Arkham for the first time, or swooping across Gotham's skyline in Arkham City. The Batmobile is the biggest addition to the franchise's bag of tricks, but there's development to the gameplay everywhere. Players can now get their hands on Commissioner Gordon and various other non-Batman characters (hello again, Catwoman), and the game's first person opening is an amazing exercise in setup. That's spoiled somewhat by yet another evacuation of the city, but this tantalising glimpse of a living, breathing Gotham is welcome.
Combat has been revamped too, making it even more fluid and allowing for such fantastic new brutalities as environmental takedowns (think the old Batman Returns side-scroller, except bloodier), Batmobile-assisted violence and the use of fallen enemies' weapons against their own comrades. If you thought Arkham Batman was a bit of a bastard before, wait until you're given the opportunity to lay into a whole roomful of goons with a metal rod. The 'no killing' rule is still intact, but it feels stretched to A-Team level proportions, with the game letting you lay waste to swathes of poor unprepared underlings, running them over with the Batmobile or blasting at them with non-lethal (yeah right) artillery fire. The game really earns its 18 rating, from the surprisingly grim opening, to the level of sadism doled out by Batman unto his low-level working class enemies. By the time you're asked to use a bit of torture interrogation ripped straight out of the PS2's Punisher, it's all starting to look a bit Guantanamo Bat: Arkham Edition.
But then subtlety has never been the Arkham series' forte. The wonderful gameplay smooths over all of the cracks there, with its every mechanic working so well. It's been worth the wait for the Batmobile, which is immensely fun to tear about the city in, no matter how much the game tries to ruin it for you by shoehorning it into every set-piece. It's a faster, less realistic Tumbler and is as ridiculously overpowered as every other aspect of Arkham Batman.
Outside of the main story, challenge rooms, unlockables and side quests will keep you going for a while, with some great villains popping up to get their faces punched in on a regular basis (one of whom gives the game an incredible jump scare). The utterly bonkers story will have you hooked until the end – and there's plenty of Riddler challenges to keep you going for a long time after that. The latter being the most irritating he's ever been, by the way, making me resent my own Batmobile with his stupid challenges and short-sleeved shirt. Come back Jim Carrey, all is forgiven.
Arkham Knight is a barnstorming end to gaming's best ever superhero series. It may spin on its wheels a little (Batmobile? Pain in the ass-mobile) and it has some serious issues with its characterisation and writing (every female in the game is depicted as a Damsel in Distress at some point, and Catwoman still hasn't pulled up her boob zipper) but in closing the trilogy, it does a great job. There's a sense of escalation that even The Dark Knight Rises could have learned from - managing that without sinking to having Alfred give away the ending during the first hour. It's as cinematic as videogames get, up there with Metal Gear Solid from a storytelling perspective.
It did, however, leave this Batfan with an odd aftertaste. Remember those bits in Arkham Asylum where you swoop about rescuing inmates (criminals!) from rooms full of poisonous gas? Maybe Arkham Knight could have done with just a little more of that, and slightly less gleeful Frank Miller-esque brutality and torture of poor dimwits and the mentally ill. Arkham Knight left me with the distinct impression that Batman is kind of a raging psychopath (darkness! No parents!) and that's just a depressing and sour note to end on, given how popular this incarnation of the character is. Everything isn't awesome, then, but it so very nearly is.
INFO: BATMAN: ARKHAM KNIGHT / DEVELOPER: ROCKSTEADY STUDIOS / PUBLISHER: WARNER BROTHERS INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT / PLATFORM: PLAYSTATION 4, XBOX ONE, PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW